TIME Iraq

Iraq Warplanes: When Subsonic is Faster than Supersonic

Russian soldiers unload Russian Sukhoi SU-25 plane in al-Muthanna Iraqi military base at Baghdad airport in Baghdad
Russian troops unload a Russian Su-25 attack plane in Baghdad on Saturday. REUTERS

Baghdad pivots to Russia for aircraft to fight Islamic terrorists

The lone acknowledged confrontation between a U.S.-made F-16 jet fighter and a Soviet Su-25 warplane took place over Pakistan near the Afghan border on August 4, 1988. The Pakistani F-16 destroyed the Su-25 with a missile, reportedly after it had strayed into Pakistani air space during Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan.

Now a second dogfight between this pair of 20th Century war birds is underway. But the Su-25 appears to be winning. This time, it’s not in the sky, but on the ground: Iraq wants those warplanes on its runways and in its inventory as soon as possible so they can be flown into the fight against the rebels of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who are threatening to topple the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

The U.S. has sold Iraq 36 speedy F-16s for $3 billion, but the first pair isn’t slated to arrive in Iraq until September. So Iraq has turned to a pair of former Soviet republics, Russia and Belarus, and is buying used Su-25s, lumbering “low and slow” aircraft like the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 Warthog, from them. Moscow apparently has accelerated delivery of the already-ordered planes at Baghdad’s urgent request.

Think of it as the military equivalent of the half-a-loaf argument: when your nation is in danger of collapsing, aging Su-25s beat brand-new F-16s every time.

“The United States remains committed to delivering the F-16s to Iraq as quickly as possible,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday, blaming some of the delay on the “completion of required financial and administrative details, which the Iraqi government has been slow to complete.” The U.S. plans to deliver two F-16s to Iraq monthly beginning in the fall, with all 36 delivered by 2016.

Amid all the geo-politicking over Iraq’s future, its choice of airplanes now that it’s in extremis highlights what’s good and bad about U.S. military hardware. It is, by most accounts, the best in the world—but the ponderous bureaucracy associated with its delivery, financing, training and logistics means that while it may be suited for tomorrow’s conflicts, it isn’t much help in today’s.

Iraq took delivery of its first F-16 June 5 at the Lockheed factory in Fort Worth where it was built (it still needs more work before they’re ready for delivery). Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, expressed delight. “It gives us the confidence that we can have enough capability of our own that we can protect the borders, to be able to protect our pipelines, and more importantly to deal with any threat of terrorism,” he said at the handover ceremony.

Five days later, ISIS took Mosul, and Iraq no longer seemed satisfied with Washington’s F-16 delivery schedule. “I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract” for the F-16s, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the BBC last week, complaining that the process was “long-winded.” He said Iraq would have been better off trying “to buy other jet fighters like British, French and Russian to secure the air cover for our forces; if we had air cover we would have averted what had happened.”

Certainly, the Su-25 (NATO nickname: Frogfoot; Russian nickname: Grach, Russian for Rook) is better-suited for plinking terrorists down below than the F-16. An initial batch of five reportedly arrived in Iraq on Saturday, part of a bigger package totaling 12 aircraft and the personnel needed to keep them flying. “The Sukhoi Su-25 is an air-ground support and anti-terrorism mission aircraft,” Iraqi Army Lieut. General Anwar Hamad Amen Ahmed told Russia’s RT news service. “In these difficult times, we are in great need of such aircraft.”

Iraq flew Su-25 attack planes during the 1980-1988 war with Iran. That means there’s an aging cohort of Iraqi pilots who could be flying the planes pretty quickly, Pentagon officials say. Iraq hopes to have the planes attacking ISIS targets within days. “God willing within one week this force will be effective and will destroy the terrorists’ dens,” Maliki said.

ITAR-TASS, the Russian news service, has repeatedly jabbed at the slowness of the U.S. deliveries in recent days. “Iraq has requested Russia to urgently supply Su-25 (Frogfoot) ground attack aircraft over Washington’s delay in delivering F-16 fighters,” one dispatch said.

But that’s not quite correct. The F-16 deliveries haven’t been delayed. “There’s been no slow-rolling,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “I’ve said it from here for the last several months that the first deliveries, the first two were scheduled to be delivered in the fall… I don’t know how one can make the case that we’re slow-rolling it when they weren’t even supposed to be delivered for another few months.”

But Army Colonel Steven Warren said Monday that the insurgency has forced the evacuation of contractors from the base north of Baghdad readying for the F-16s’ arrival. “I don’t have a specific timeline for how the relocation of contractors from Balad will affect the delivery of the F-16s,” he said. “It certainly will.”

 

TIME Iraq

Obama Orders About 200 More U.S. Troops to Baghdad

Combat-ready troops, drones, and helicopters deployed to protect U.S. citizens and property in Iraq

President Barack Obama has ordered the deployment of up to 200 more American service members to reinforce security of American diplomatic facilities in Baghdad, as well as the Baghdad International Airport, he announced in a letter to Congress on Monday.

With the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria growing, Obama said he is deploying the combat-ready troops to protect U.S. citizens and property in Iraq. The deployment is on top of about 170 American troops Obama ordered into Baghdad to defend the American embassy earlier in June, when an additional 100 were kept in reserve outside of Iraq, and separate from the roughly 300 Special Forces troops he has authorized to begin advising Iraqi security forces. This brings the total number of troops Obama has authorized to be sent to Iraq to nearly 800.

The additional troops include security forces, rotary-wing aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Kirby said the approximately 200 troops arrived Sunday, and that the 100-person force that was held in reserve earlier in June will move into Baghdad as well.

“The presence of these additional forces will help enable the embassy to continue its critical diplomatic mission and work with Iraq on challenges they are facing as they confront Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” Kirby said in a statement.

 

TIME Iraq

Iraq: Mortar Shells Hit Near Gate of Shiite Shrine

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials say three mortars have landed near the gate of a much-revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, wounding at least nine people.

The golden domed al-Askari mosque in Samarra is one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam. Sunni militants blew up the dome in 2006, helping trigger some of the country’s worst sectarian bloodshed as Shiite extremists retaliated forcefully.

The deputy head of the Samarra municipal council Mizhar Fleih says the attack took place Monday evening and the shells struck a reception area near the gate. He says nine people were wounded.

Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi confirmed the attack and casualty figures.

TIME publishing

Starbucks Chair Co-Writing Book on Military Vets

NEW YORK — Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz is collaborating on a book about veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice” will be released by Alfred A. Knopf on Nov. 4. The book will be co-written by Washington Post correspondent and editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

“Given that less than 1 percent of our country has served in the military conflicts of the last decade, this is a time in America when it’s crucial to bridge the divide in our society between our civilian and military populations,” Schultz said in a statement issued Monday by the publisher.

The book will tell of deeds both on the battlefield and back home, whether an orthopedic surgeon who enlisted at age 60 and saved numerous lives or a military spouse helping wives of severely wounded soldiers.

Schultz has been a prominent advocate for veterans, saying that too little has been done for them once their service was completed. He has pledged to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses, and earlier this year donated $30 million for research into post-traumatic stress syndrome and brain trauma.

According to Knopf, Schultz is giving all author proceeds to charity.

TIME Iraq

The Iraqi Government Seems Helpless to Stop ISIS’s New Caliphate

The Sunni militant group says it has created its own Islamic empire. Their hold is less than secure, but Iraq's government seems helpless

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With the upload of an audio recording, radical Sunni militants on June 29 declared a new Islamic caliphate, a religious superstate, stretching from eastern Iraq to the Syrian city of Aleppo. The group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is now simply the Islamic State, dropping the names of the two countries whose sovereignty it doesn’t recognize.

After weeks of laying claim to Iraqi territory, the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said on Sunday that they had everything necessary to proclaim their state. The Caliph — or leader — is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born ISIS leader who appears to be giving al-Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a run for his money. “Listen to your leader and obey him,” said al-Adnani in the online statement. “Support your state, which grows continuously.”

But despite massive Sunni discontent with the Shi‘ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a caliphate run by a Caliph whose location is unknown and whose representatives regularly order beheadings may still be too much for many Iraqis. “They put up the new rules at all the mosques,” said one resident of Mosul, an Iraqi city that has fallen to ISIS. “Now it’s no smoking, no argileh pipes, and they sent the women home from government jobs.”

Even more troubling than the strict Shari‘a law ISIS is known to enforce with public lashings and executions is the militant group’s assertion of sovereignty over the territory it controls. There are many Islamists and well-armed Sunnis within ISIS’s self-declared borders who won’t be keen to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi and his black flag.

Until now, Sunni tribes and the old guard of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party have been playing along with ISIS against a common enemy: Baghdad and al-Maliki’s Shi‘ite-led government. But “there are a lot of tribes that don’t want to be part of a caliphate,” said Kenneth Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. And it may be their resistance, rather the Iraqi army, that will prove the true obstacle for ISIS. “This is exactly the thing back in 2006 when they were al-Qaeda in Iraq that got them in to trouble and helped push the Sunni tribes back into the arms of the Americans.”

But as ISIS defends its new territory, its assertion of dominance may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as an increasing number of fighters join the group seen as winning on the ground. “The events of the last three weeks have really boosted ISIS’s stock among the global jihadist movement,” said Pollack. “These guys took Mosul. When was the last time al-Qaeda did anything that impressive? So if you’re some young would-be jihadi I think there is a good likelihood you’re going to choose ISIS as opposed to the old al-Qaeda.”

ISIS fighters continue to battle Iraqi government troops, particularly for the strategic northern city of Tikrit. Despite outnumbering the jihadists, the Iraqi national army has retaken little ground, and is desperately reaching out to the international community for military support. Russia was quick to deliver a small fleet of warplanes over the weekend, and U.S. advisers are already in country to support the Iraqi military.

But al-Maliki’s choice of military force rather than political negotiation is failing, and calls for him to step down here are being heard in Tehran, and even in Iraq among his Shi‘ite support base. On July 1 Iraq’s parliament will reconvene and there will be a lot of pressure on al-Maliki to make the concessions suggested by U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and British First Secretary of State William Hague when they visited Iraq recently. Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities say the current government has a sectarian agenda and the Kurds are more interested in autonomy than a new deal with Baghdad.

“We are in a new reality now, and it’s clear Iraq will never be ruled by one man, one sect, or party,” said Hiwa Osman, an analyst and writer based in Erbil. “The new Iraq is to be managed, not ruled. Managing the relationships between the various regions is the only way forward if the country wants to stay together.”

A political solution out of the parliament tomorrow is unlikely. Not only has al-Maliki shown he’s unwilling to compromise, but Osman says those Sunnis who will be sitting in the opening session on Tuesday don’t have the necessary influence in the areas of the newly declared caliphate.

“If they were really the players, they would be on the ground in Mosul, in Tikrit, in Nineveh,” said Osman. “Not in Baghdad.”

TIME Iraq

Alarms Were Sounded on Blackwater Well Before the 2007 Iraq Shooting

Evan Liberty
Former Blackwater guard Evan Liberty, right, arrives at a federal court in Washington to stand trial on June 11, 2014 Cliff Owen—ASSOCIATED PRESS

Documents on Blackwater reveal that a U.S. State Department official warned of the military contractor’s poor oversight and arrogant attitudes weeks prior to the Nisour Square bloodbath

A U.S. State Department official wrote of Blackwater’s lack of oversight and its “environment full of liability and negligence” well before Blackwater guards killed 17 civilians and injured 20 others in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007, reports the New York Times.

Weeks prior to the shooting, the State Department had begun an investigation into the military contractor’s operations in Iraq — but the probe was aborted after Blackwater’s top manager threatened that “he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports obtained and published by the Times.

As tensions over the investigation worsened in August 2007, American embassy officials sided with Blackwater — and officials told State Department investigators to pull out of the probe because it disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor, according to the report.

Alarmed, Jean C. Richter, the investigator, wrote a scathing memo to State Department officials on Aug. 31, 2007. “The management structures in place to manage and monitor our contracts in Iraq have become subservient to the contractors themselves,” he wrote of Blackwater.

He added that the firm had a “hands off” management style, saw itself as “above the law” and that “they actually believe they ‘ran the place.’”

The State Department declined to comment to the Times on the abandoned investigation. Blackwater’s former chief executive, Erik Prince, said he was never told about the matter.

The Nisour Square shooting had an immediate impact on America’s occupation in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for the termination of Blackwater’s contract. He also refused a treaty that would have allowed American troops to remain in the country after 2011.

There are currently four Blackwater guards on trial in Washington for their role in the shooting.

[NYT]

TIME Iraq

ISIS Militants Declare Islamist ‘Caliphate’

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
A member of ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. Reuters

In a move that may attract more followers, the Sunni extremist group claims to establish dominion over all the world's Muslims

The extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Sunday declared a new caliphate — or an Islamic state to claim dominion over Muslims across the globe — on the territory it holds in the two countries.

An online statement declared the group’s shadowy leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph, or successor to the Prophet Mohammed, who died in 632. The position has been vacant since 1924, when the founder of modern Turkey abolished the office as a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, and bundled the last man to hold it, a bookish Francophile named Abdulmecid Efendi, into exile aboard the Orient Express.

Restoring the caliphate, and with it a measure of the glory that attended Islam’s golden age, has been the stated goal of Sunni Muslim activists for decades, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hizb ut-Tahrir to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. But al-Baghdadi’s group is the first to assert it. “The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people, after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect — the time has come for them to rise,” said the statement.

“They are saying that they are now the center of gravity in global jihad,” says Hayder Al-Khoei, a specialist on Iraq at Chatham House, a London think tank. “They have leap-frogged in that sense al-Qaeda.”

The most immediate tangible effect of the announcement, attributed to ISIS spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani, was to shorten the group’s name. It now wants to be called simply Islamic State, moving past debates over transliterations of the former title, sometimes rendered as ISIL, for Levant instead of Syria, or al-Shams. Social-media sites like Twitter, which the group has used expertly to amplify its message and sense of a strong following, came alive with a new #IS hashtag, while Facebook carried posts claiming to document celebrations — shooting in the air from pickups — in the streets of Raqqa, the Syrian city the Islamist group has held the longest.

Any further impact will depend on public reaction. In the immediate wake of the announcement, skeptics were not hard to find.

The world, after all, is pretty well organized as nation states, the governing concept that admirers of the caliphate reject. “To me,” says al-Khoei, “it sounds like a publicity stunt.”

Even if it is, it might pay off. It’s not hard to imagine Sunday’s announcement, at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, inspiring young Muslims already inclined toward jihad. “If they’re a caliphate now, a lot of people, possibly living in America or Europe — the ones who are already radicalized and inclined to join them, it’s more of an impetus,” al-Khoei tells TIME. “Maybe the publicity stunt will affect recruiting in that sense. There’ll be more eager, young volunteers excited by the sense that it’s here now, it’s a reality now.”

The fact is, a certain nostalgia for the caliphate lingers in much of the Muslim community — and not only among fundamentalists, or so-called takfiri groups like ISIS that see Shi‘ite Muslims as apostates. Catholics still have their Pope, these mainstream believers point out, and Eastern Orthodox Christians their patriarch.

But there are Caliphs and there are Caliphs. And while many, like the current Christian leaders, preach peace, the summons from the Mesopotamian desert Sunday was to “greedily drink the blood” of nonbelievers according to an early translation posted online:

“The sun of jihad has risen … The glad tidings of good are shining. Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared. Here the flag of the Islamic State, the flag of tawhīd (monotheism), rises and flutters. Its shade covers land from Aleppo to Diyala.

… So rush O Muslims and gather around your khalīfah [caliphate], so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war. Come so that you may be honored and esteemed, living as masters with dignity. Know that we fight over a religion that Allah promised to support. We fight for an ummah [global Muslim community] to which Allah has given honor, esteem, and leadership, promising it with empowerment and strength on the earth. Come O Muslims to your honor, to your victory. By Allah, if you disbelieve in democracy, secularism, nationalism, as well as all the other garbage and ideas from the west, and rush to your religion and creed, then by Allah, you will own the earth, and the east and west will submit to you. This is the promise of Allah to you. This is the promise of Allah to you.”

TIME Iraq

Iraq Leader Under Pressure to Step Aside as U.S. Looks Elsewhere

A moment of truth for Nouri al-Maliki

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced growing pressure Friday to make way for a new government, as the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies turned to moderate Syrian opposition forces to curtail the growing influence of militants who control vast swaths of Iraq.

On multiple fronts, al-Maliki faced a country largely disintegrating before him. A top Shi’ite cleric urged the country’s parliament to pick a new Prime Minister before Monday, which could lead to the ouster of the highly divisive al-Maliki, a Shi’ite who has been criticized for not reaching out to the country’s Sunnis. Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, a cleric who represents Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged a new leader even as he called for national unity in a country that is quickly fracturing between Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

“Iraqis have passed bigger crises than this in the past history,” al-Karbalai, according to the New York Times. “We must not think of dividing Iraq as part of a solution for the current crises, the solution must protect the unity of Iraq and the rights of all its sects.”

In the north, local officials in the largely autonomous Kurdish region defied the demands of religious and government leaders, suggesting they have no intention of giving up the power they seized when Iraqi troops fled as fighters from the militant group ISIS advanced earlier this month.

“We have presented many sacrifices in the past,” Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani told the Times. “Our lands have resorted to their origin identity.”

And American support for al-Maliki continued to appear on the wane. In Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State John Kerry stood beside Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba as Jarba decried al-Maliki’s leadership.

“The policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after eight years in power, have resulted in greater division,” Jarba said, according to a State Department readout of a news conference there. “Now the situation is very grave and there are sectarian militias ruling the country.”

Kerry also met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to coordinate a response to the ISIS militants, whose gains have forced President Barack Obama to deploy a limited number of military advisers to Iraq.

The maneuvering came on a day when officials confirmed for the first time that the American military has begun flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. troops and officials on the ground. It also followed Obama’s Thursday announcement that the U.S. would provide an additional half-a-billion dollars to support Jarba’s forces, which the White House described as “appropriately vetted” fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Jarba’s group, which is composed of moderate Sunnis, has been fighting radical Islamist militants in Syria, particularly ISIS, as well as the government of Assad. The U.S. and its allies hope that the moderate group will play a key role in ending an insurgency that has given ISIS more territorial control in the region than any other Islamist group in recent memory.

“President Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq,” Kerry said. “He knows the people there, and his point of view and the Syrian opposition’s will be very important going forward.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Why Obama Is Finally Getting Serious About Syria

Rebel fighters carry their weapons as they run past damaged buildings to avoid snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Mleha suburb of Damascus May 26, 2014. REUTERS/Badra Mamet (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT MILITARY) - RTR3QXRJ Badra Mamet—Reuters

A White House reversal after months of rejecting calls for more aid to moderate rebels

For the better part of three years, President Barack Obama kept a wary distance from Syria’s civil war. He had little appetite for getting entangled in another Middle East conflict, and knew the public agreed with him, while also doubting that the U.S. could hope to control the bloody chaos there. In 2012, he resisted pressure from Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus to provide the rebels with more support. Even after Syrian President Bashar Assad murdered civilians with nerve gas last year, Obama backed away from threatened air strikes and approved only limited arms transfers and CIA training of moderate fighters on a small scale. His ambassador to Syria resigned in February, saying he could no longer defend Obama’s cautious policy.

Now Obama has dramatically reversed his position. The White House is asking Congress for $500 million to create a Pentagon program to train and arm what it called “appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition.”

This is no quick fix. It may not be a fix at all. Obama’s plan will take months to get off the ground, even if Congress agrees to it. But it does amount to a clear admission—you might even call it a concession—by Obama that his Syria policy is not working.

Why the shift now? The short answer is Iraq. The ISIS blitz through northern and western Iraq shows how the festering wound of Syria’s civil war is infecting the wider region. ISIS has drawn manpower, money and momentum from the Syrian civil war, and now controls a large swath of Syrian territory. To prevent it from burning down Iraq, the ISIS fire needs to be squelched in Syria.

Assad can’t do that. He has reached a kind of stalemate with his rebel enemies, and at times has even seemed to be in a de facto truce with ISIS. Obama won’t do it either. For now, military action to tilt the Syrian battlefield is not a live option.

A partial solution could come in the form of moderate Syrian rebels, who don’t subscribe to radical anti-western Islamic dogma, and who don’t want to see ISIS, and similar radical groups, gain power in Syria.

Obama says that full solution to the Syria crisis, and the radicalism it breeds, is a political settlement. The goal is for Assad to step down, making way for a new multisectarian government in his place.”[W]e continue to believe that there is no military solution to this crisis,” national security council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a June 26 statement.

A stronger Syrian opposition might be able to break the stalemate and pry Assad from his grip on power, Obama’s ex-ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, told PBS earlier this month. “We can’t get to a political negotiation until the balance on the ground compels — and I use that word precisely—compels Assad … to negotiate a political deal,” Ford said.

But here’s where things get complicated: Do we still want Assad gone? ISIS’s frightening offensive in Iraq has made the tyrannical opthamologist seem like a potentially useful ally. Loathsome as Assad may be, it’s hard to argue that his defeat is more important than that of ISIS—which, unlike Assad, aspires to start a regional civil war with Shi’ites and even launch terror attacks against western targets. Assad, whose jets bombed ISIS positions along Iraq’s border this week, is the enemy of our enemy. Does that make him our friend? Some foreign policy thinkers suggest so, calling for a short-term U.S. alliance with in the anti-ISIS fight.

Obama’s not there yet. He still wants Assad gone. He just doesn’t want him toppled by ISIS.

It’s not exactly a simple plan. And it will unfold slowly. If Congress approves Obama’s plan, it will be months longer before a Pentagon training program gets underway—and more time still before it forges enough skilled fighters to shape the Syrian conflict.

What’s clear is that Obama understands the status quo in Syria is a disaster, on that is creating what the recently-departed United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, called a “failed state” prone to “blow up” the wider region.

And so Obama may be admitting he’s wrong. After months of arguing that taking serious action in Syria is too risky, Obama is signaling that the consequences of inaction— now unfolding across northern and western Iraq—are too dangerous to tolerate.

TIME

Kerry: Syrian Moderate Rebels Could Help in Iraq

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State John Kerry signaled on Friday that the U.S. hopes to enlist moderate Syrian opposition fighters that the Obama administration has reluctantly decided to arm and train in the battle against militant extremists in neighboring Iraq.

Obama sent Congress a $500 million request Thursday for a Pentagon-run program that would significantly expand previous covert efforts to arm rebels fighting both the Sunni extremists and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The move that comes amid increased U.S. concern that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are becoming an intertwined fight against the same Sunni extremist group.

If approved by lawmakers, the program would in effect open a second front in the fight against militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, that is spilling over Syria’s border and threatening to overwhelm Iraq.

“Obviously, in light of what has happened in Iraq, we have even more to talk about in terms of the moderate opposition in Syria, which has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL’s presence and to have them not just in Syria, but also in Iraq,” Kerry said at the start of a meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba.

Al-Jarba thanked the Obama administration for requesting the $500 million, but said his rebels want even more foreign aid to fight two fronts: a bloody insurgency and their so-far unsuccessful effort to oust Assad.

“We still need greater assistance,” al-Jarba said, speaking through a translator. “We hope for greater cooperation with the U.S.” He said General Abdullah al-Bashir, the head of the military wing of the Syrian opposition, “is ready to cooperate with the U.S. side.”

Al-Jarba called the crisis that has gripped Iraq in the last month “very grave” and blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for policies that he said have divided the country. Iraq is 60 percent Shiite, and the rest nearly evenly split between minority Sunnis and Kurds. Iraqi Sunnis, who enjoyed far greater privileges during Saddam Hussein’s regime, have decried al-Maliki’s leadership and accused him of sidelining minority groups from power.

“The borders between Iraq and Syria are practically open,” al-Jarba told Kerry. ISIL seized a key border crossing between Iraq and Syria in the last week.

Kerry traveled through the Mideast over the last week to try to broker a political agreement with Iraqi leaders to give more authority to Sunnis in hopes of easing sectarian tensions and, in turn, help quell the dominantly Sunni insurgency.

Kerry also met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, where it was expected he would seek the monarch’s help in supporting Sunni efforts to combat the Sunni insurgency. More than 90 percent of Saudi Arabians are Sunni Muslims.

Obama has long been reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition, in part because of concerns that weapons may fall into extremist hands, a risk that appears to have only heightened now that ISIL has strengthened. But Obama’s request to Congress appeared to indicate that tackling the crumbling security situation in Syria and Iraq trumped those concerns.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the military assistance “marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists like ISIL who find safe haven in the chaos, and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels.”

The Syria program is part of a broader, $65.8 billion overseas operations request that the administration sent to Capitol Hill on Thursday. The package includes $1 billion to help stabilize nations bordering Syria that are struggling with the effects of the civil war. It also formalizes a request for a previously announced $1 billion to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Central and Eastern Europe amid Russia’s threatening moves in Ukraine.

With ISIL gaining strength, U.S. officials say Assad’s forces launched airstrikes on extremist targets inside Iraq on Monday. The U.S. is also weighing targeted strikes against ISIL in Iraq, creating an odd alignment with one of Washington’s biggest foes.

Obama has ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq. But he has dispatched nearly 600 U.S. forces in and around Iraq to train local forces and secure the American Embassy in Baghdad and other U.S. interests.

The White House has been hinting for weeks that Obama was preparing to step up assistance to the Syrian rebels. In a commencement speech at West Point on May 28, he said that by helping those fighting for a free Syria, “we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.”

Officials said the administration would coordinate with Congress and regional players on the specific types of training and assistance the U.S. would provide the opposition. One potential option would be to base U.S. personnel in Jordan and conduct the training there.

The Senate Armed Services Committee already has approved a version of the sweeping defense policy bill authorizing the Defense Department to provide “equipment, supplies, training and defense services” to elements of the Syrian opposition that have been screened. The Senate could act on the bill before its August recess.

In addition to the covert train-and-equip mission, the U.S. also has provided nearly $287 million in nonlethal assistance to the moderate opposition.

The military program would be supplemented by $1 billion in assistance to Syria’s neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — to help them deal with an influx of refugees and the threat of extremists spilling over their borders.

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